Photo by Robin Trimarchi / Ledger-EnquirerNikki Boyter kisses her fiance, Capt. Steven Austin of Midlothian, Va., upon his return to Fort Benning from Iraq with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team’s advance party Saturday.
Boost from the Brigade
BUSINESSES LOOK TO RECOVER FROM ABSENCE OF 3,800 SOLDIERS OVER PAST 14 MONTHS
BY TONY ADAMS
Valerie Smith vividly remembers when the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team -- a full force of 3,800 soldiers -- shipped out more than a year ago for the war in Iraq.
Kelly Hill, where the unit is housed at Fort Benning, became a virtual ghost town save for a few contractors and a handful of troops remaining behind.
"It has truly impacted our business up here. It has been tough," said Smith, manager of the Kelly Hill Burger King, which cut its hours and staffing dramatically after the March 2007 deployment. "We do miss the soldiers because of their friendly faces and everything when they're coming in. It's just wonderful when they're here."
Well, the cavalry -- and the armor, infantry and artillery -- are on the way. The first wave of 3rd Brigade soldiers arrived over the weekend and the rest are scheduled to be back home by the end of May.
Families and friends they left behind are anxiously awaiting their return. But so are local businesses that rely heavily on the uniformed warriors to keep their financial boats afloat.
Retail outlets, car dealers, restaurants, nightclubs and apartment complexes -- all felt the pain when the 3rd Brigade left for Iraq. They now are looking for a much-needed shot in the arm as the troops -- some who likely have saved thousands of dollars while fighting overseas -- go on an anticipated spending spree in the first few weeks after they return.
The economic ripple should be felt on and off post.
"We expect at least another 5 to 10 percent increase in sales," said Steve Martin, manager of the Main Post Exchange on Fort Benning. "We're definitely bumping up our orders."
The 247,000-square-foot post exchange, which has a variety of food outlets and other vendors, held its grand opening in November. So the 3rd Brigade soldiers, unless they came home briefly during the holidays, haven't seen the facility, which is more than twice the size of the old one.
Martin said he expects electronics to be a hot item for the arriving soldiers, as well as civilian clothing, jewelry and outdoor gear to outfit their homes or apartments.
"If they have families, they're probably going to be buying new grills and patio furniture and stuff like that with the extra money they've got," he said.
Saving for a 'splurge'
The money that some of the 3rd Brigade soldiers have accrued while in the Middle East can definitely add up.
Base pay is exempt from federal income taxes, while the government also offers those serving in a combat zone extra pay ranging from $225 to $450 per month, depending on how hostile of an area they are in.
Those with families also receive a family separation allowance of $250 per month. It kicks in anytime soldiers are ordered away from their loved ones for 30 days or more.
Other benefits include an extra $1,000 per month for any time served beyond a year in a combat zone. And those in combat can deposit up to $10,000 annually in a special savings account with a guaranteed interest rate of 10 percent per year
"A lot of our soldiers do save up that extra money they get from being over there in Iraq," said Evelyn Livermore, a 3rd Brigade readiness support assistant. "A lot of our soldiers are very frugal and they save that money because they want to do something special with their family -- if they are married -- like go on a cruise."
Livermore knows of at least two soldiers who are planning rest and relaxation on the high seas, such as in the Caribbean. She also expects a fair number of them to go car shopping after having driven only Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles for the past year.
"They go out and look for a car because they have a nice, good solid down payment to put on it, which helps lower the interest rate as well as the payment," she said. "That's what we know, and we are expecting."
Of the returning soldiers, about 1,400 are single and 2,400 married. All will initially face a 10-day "reintegration period" in which they clean up and secure equipment and weapons brought back with them.
After that, the block leaves begin, with some soldiers expected to take up to 30 days off to unwind and decompress. Some may travel back to their respective homes across the country. Others may stay right here.
Either way, they'll be pulling out the greenbacks and credit cards. It will be therapeutic, said Livermore, who calls it a bit of a "feel-good" syndrome.
"They'll splurge money on themselves because they had to live in such -- I don't want to call it primitive conditions -- but if you and I look at it, it's not our typical conditions that we live in," she said. "They had to give up a lot being over there. So for them to come back into the regular world we know, they're going to go ahead and splurge on themselves, which is to be expected."
Cars, food likelyon troops' wish lists
That's what Rob Doll, owner of the Nissan dealership in Columbus, is anticipating. He should know, having served a lengthy period of time in combat during the Vietnam War.
"When I came home, I had been without for two years and I had money saved up and I wanted a new car, I wanted a new stereo, and where I didn't have a lot of resources to get them before, I had them now," he said.
Doll said his auto business suffered immediately once the 3rd Brigade troops left, although the overall economy has put a hurt on sales as well. He didn't track his military customer numbers, but he knows there will be what he calls a "boomerang" or "yo-yo" effect with the troops, having left 14 months ago, now returning with their hard-earned money.
"When they come back, we'll get that boomerang or that rubber-band effect in two months, and probably 80 percent of it in the first month they're back," Doll said. "It's just great to have 'em back, but the economic impact certainly cannot be overlooked. It's going to be very good."
Reuben Gentry, manager of Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar on Gentian Boulevard, agrees. There was a noticeable decline in sales when the 3rd Brigade left last year, and it has been exacerbated by the general public cutting back on spending as gas prices have risen.
"You can check any restaurant's sales trends," he said. "Everything dropped as soon as they left. All of the economy dropped, especially here in Columbus -- housing, restaurants, everything."
An infusion of 3,800 people into the market, many with families, will be just what the financial doctor ordered, said Gentry, who plans to staff up as the soldiers return and fan out through Columbus to spend.
"They've been over there and haven't had any time back home," he said. "So their bank accounts are pretty fat, at least the single soldiers are anyway. The married soldiers, I'm sure they have their spouses back home making sure they spend their money properly."
The boost looks to extend to local nightlife. Clubs and bars no doubt want a piece of the action when the soldiers return. That's why some, including The Catwalk, an adult club fronting Veterans Parkway in north Columbus, have already put welcome messages to the troops on their marquees.
"Everybody notices when they leave. Everybody notices when they come back," said Larry Hamilton, manager of the club. He estimates that 40 percent of his clientele is military, with each soldier spending $20 to $25 per visit. "They don't come in and blow a whole bunch of money," he said.
Housing market to benefit. There will be absolute necessities to spend on, however. And housing is a biggie.
Brighton Park Apartments on Warm Springs Road already has had six soldiers decide to stay at the 224-unit complex, said assistant manager Renee Scurry. Apartments range from $685 for one bedroom to $950 for three bedrooms.
"We've had quite a few who have called from Iraq and we've had several that either their spouse or their parent has a power of attorney and they have contacted us," Scurry said. "We have several others that are in the works."
Greystone Properties also has fielded numerous calls from military people needing a place to stay, said Evelyn Barfield, the apartment company's chief operating officer.
Requests have come in the form of phone calls, e-mails and Web site queries. Greystone has nearly 2,200 apartment units in Columbus, ranging from about $650 to $1,600 per month.
"We have had a lot of requests for returns," Barfield said. "The military who were in our properties prior to leaving are calling requesting to return."
Will White, a partner in Greystone Properties LLC, said the apartment market did soften up when the 3rd Brigade departed last year. He believes the market bottomed out last fall, making it one of the softest in seven or eight years.
But the sector -- which has about 14,000 apartment units locally -- appears to be turning the corner and moving back toward a 94-percent occupancy rate, White said. The 3rd Brigade's return may push that even higher.
"A healthy apartment market is considered to be from 94 percent and above," he said. "When you get into 97 percent and above -- which we had going back maybe three or four years ago -- that is considered to be abnormal. And we've seen a lot of construction partly as a result of that."